Sunday 26 January, 2020

What the Clearview AI story means

This morning’s Observer column:

Ultimately, the lesson of Clearview is that when a digital technology is developed, it rapidly becomes commodified. Once upon a time, this stuff was the province of big corporations. Now it can be exploited by small fry. And on a shoestring budget. One of the co-founders paid for server costs and basic expenses. Mr Ton-That lived on credit-card debt. And everyone worked from home. “Democracy dies in darkness” goes the motto of the Washington Post. “Privacy dies in a hacker’s bedroom” might now be more appropriate.

Read on

UPDATE A lawsuit — seeking class-action status — was filed this week in Illinois against Clearview AI, a New York-based startup that has scraped social media networks for people’s photos and created one of the biggest facial recognition databases in the world.

Privacy is a public good

Shoshana Zuboff in full voice:

”The belief that privacy is private has left us careening toward a future that we did not choose, because it failed to reckon with the profound distinction between a society that insists upon sovereign individual rights and one that lives by the social relations of the one-way mirror. The lesson is that privacy is public — it is a collective good that is logically and morally inseparable from the values of human autonomy and self-determination upon which privacy depends and without which a democratic society is unimaginable.”

Great OpEd piece.

The winding path

Why the media shouldn’t underestimate Joe Biden

Simple: Trump’s crowd don’t. They think he’s the real threat. (Which explains the behaviour that’s led to Trump’s Impeachment.) David Brooks has some sharp insights into why the chattering classes are off target About this.

It’s the 947th consecutive sign that we in the coastal chattering classes have not cured our insularity problem. It’s the 947th case in which we see that every second you spend on Twitter detracts from your knowledge of American politics, and that the only cure to this insularity disease is constant travel and interviewing, close attention to state and local data and raw abject humility about the fact that the attitudes and academic degrees that you think make you clever are actually the attitudes and academic degrees that separate you from the real texture of American life.

Also, the long and wide-ranging [NYT interview)( with him is full of interesting stuff — like that he thinks that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (that’s the get-out-of-gaol card for the tech companies) should be revoked. I particularly enjoyed this observation by Brooks: “ Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and Bernie Sanders here are a doctoral student’s idea of a working-class candidate, not an actual working person’s idea of one.”



Saturday January 18, 2020

The enigma that is Twitter

In relation to Google and Facebook, Twitter is a minnow. And yet it dominates our politics and public discourse, in ways that seem increasingly dysfunctional. Writing in The Atlantic, Robinson Meyer argues that that’s because “it’s a machine for misunderstanding other people’s ideas and identities”. Developing the idea led him to dig into the ideas of Walter Ong, a linguist and Jesuit priest who died at 91 in 2003. “Ong spent his life trying to understand the revolutionary technologies, such as the television and radio, unleashed during his lifetime. But he did so by looking far from modern America—and by studying the difference between human cultures rooted in orality and those rooted in literacy. His topic matters for Twitter more than you may think.” Oral conversation is very different from text-based interactions, and the problem with Twitter is that it fuses the two. “The rot we’re seeing in Twitter”, as Bonnie Stewart puts it, is “the rot of participatory media devolved into competitive spheres where the collective ‘we’ treats conversational contributions as fixed print-like identity claims.” Sounds pretentious, maybe, but isn’t: and worth reading in full. permalink

Trolling, epilepsy and human nature

The Internet holds a mirror up to human nature, and much that is reflected there is truly revolting. If you want an insight into the depths of human depravity, then thisis is pretty good illustration. Epilepsy sufferers have been plagued by trolls who target them with strobing GIFs which can trigger epileptic attacks. Last week the trial opened of a guy named John Rayne Rivello who had sent a GIF that triggered a serious attack to a journalist who had posted material critical of Donald Trump. The GIF strobed violently across his computer screen, flashing a red, yellow and blue geometric pattern behind the words “YOU DESERVE A SEIZURE FOR YOUR POSTS.” The attack could have been fatal if the victim’s wife had not discovered him in time. Rivello is expected to plead guilty, making this the first conviction for this kind of inhuman behaviour, but what’s even more revolting is that Rivello’s supporters — among them, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, including Richard Spencer — have been arguing that the issue here is about freedom of speech. In an amicus brief to the criminal case, the First Amendment Clinic at Duke University School of Law put the boot into this idiotic claim: “A brawler who tattoos a message onto his knuckles does not throw every punch with the weight of First Amendment protection behind him,” the brief stated. “Conduct like this does not constitute speech, nor should it. A deliberate attempt to cause physical injury to someone does not come close to the expression which the First Amendment is designed to protect.” permalink






  • The three things that changed the face of European tech Interesting essay by Nicholas Colin. The ‘three things’, btw, are: the 2008 banking crisis; the rise of Chinese tech power; and the backlash against the US tech giants.
  •  Conspire Slowly, Act Quickly  David Runciman’s LRB review of the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher.
  • Mission Thinking: A Problem-Solving Approach To Fuel Innovation-Led Growth Mariana Mazzucato’s manifesto on the need for a new focus on mission-led innovation (with the kind of enlightened state funding that led to the Internet in the 1960s). We badly need the power of positive thinking rather than the privatised ‘innovation’ of Silicon Valley.
  • Electric Cars Threaten the Heart of Germany’s Economy Every time I find myself driving behind a fancy BMW, Audi or Mercedes diesel car In wonder if their drivers know they are driving obsolescent machines. The German automobile industry employs about 850,000 directly, and millions more indirectly. And it’s still almost entirely based on the internal combustion engine. There’s trouble ahead for Europe’s industrial giant.


Xmas linkblog



Thanks to Philip Cunningham for spotting a duff link.